When Thomas Drayton hops on the saddle of his Trek Domane on Sept. 12 and rolls away from Grand Portage he'll no doubt have time to think about the rare form of thyroid cancer that could take his life in the next 10 or so years.
Between the far North Shore and his destination 465 miles away in New Albin, Iowa, he'll also have time to consider how word of his big DIY benefit ride might flash like a warning in the mind of another and help prevent that person from his fate. That, he said, is his singular hope.
Had Drayton, 50, not brushed aside years of a flushed and red face (he thought it was rosacea) and odd, random bouts of exhaustion and trouble eating and drinking, he would have seen a physician years sooner than last September. And that checkup and its analysis might have turned up early-stage cancer that's highly treatable and not Stage 4C — the final stage — of medullary thyroid cancer. Drayton had his thyroid removed within a month of diagnosis, but cancer has spread now to several of his vertebrae and both hips.
Medullary cancer of the thyroid, a gland that is critical to regulating metabolism, makes up 5 to 10 % of all thyroid cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society. It estimates that this year alone there will be about 45,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in the United States. The cause of most thyroid cancers isn't clear, according to cancer support groups like the Thyroid Cancer Survivors' Association (ThyCA) that Drayton is supporting financially through his ride. Medullary cancer can be genetic, but he said it isn't in his case. Plus, Drayton said he has a rare mutation of the cancer that makes it unresponsive to chemotherapy and other possible treatments.
"The ultimate goal [of the ride] is getting the message out and getting people aware that, yeah, a physical is boring or a pain," he said, "but it can save your life."
Supported by his girlfriend, Gretchen Strobel, Drayton plans to ride to Iowa over five days, totaling near 100 miles per day. He said he was inspired by recollections of another feat of endurance in the face of cancer: Canadian Terry Fox made headlines and newscasts in 1980. After losing his right leg to bone cancer, Fox began a run across Canada, east to west, to raise money for cancer research. His quest made him a household name (Drayton's parents are Canadian, and he recalls following along when they lived in Vancouver). Fox's run was short-circuited after 143 days when cancer returned in his lungs. He died at age 22 in June 1981, but he left a legacy of support.
Drayton has modest expectations but thought a Fox-style approach ("creating a spectacle") might help get out his message.
"Everybody always says, 'If I could at least help one person …' " he said. "Like, yeah, that really is true."
Strobel sees that preparing to ride has given Drayton focus.
"It is propelling him through the diagnosis and what that means, because he loves cycling," she said. "I think it will be a good experience for both of us."
Using a bike was the natural tool of choice to communicate. He'd found fitness and adventure on a mountain bike in recent years. So much so that he moved to Burnsville to live closer to the popular trails at Lebanon Regional Park in Eagan. Drayton would get on his road bike when the trails were too wet to ride.
Just as Drayton, a tech support manager, has used the internet to find support and get educated about his cancer, he also has leveraged it to publicize his ride. He has started a GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $3,300. It concludes in September, which is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. Any donations will go to ThyCA.
But for pain in his back when he stands for too long, Drayton said he feels great. At least physically. He trains with rides of about 25-30 miles a day, but he expects a test once Sept. 12 arrives. "This definitely will be the most riding I have ever done," he said. "It is kind of intimidating, but I am looking forward to it."
He's carried more than water and nourishment as he piles up the miles. He recalled last year's "roller coaster" in the months after his diagnosis and urgent surgery. With a cancer that is untreatable, the unknown is its own weight. Drayton said oncologists are reluctant to discuss life expectancy, but he's read that cases like his have a 20% chance of surviving 10 or more years.
Still he's turned his energy to the upcoming things, like his ride, that are knowable. He knows he'll take the miles as they come, and he is certain he wants a grander benefit ride — outside Minnesota — in years to come. In the near term, he is grateful for the Facebook connections that have helped him plan the September ride. And he welcomes people to ride with him, too, and is hopeful to gain traction on his website, ntride.org, where he can get followed in real time. ("NT" is his wry reference to his ride mantra — No Thyroid? No Problem!)
"If I can get more people interested, that is phenomenal, that's awesome," he said.
Until then, another training ride awaited from home base in Burnsville.
"What am I going to do? Wallow in self-pity, or enjoy my life? I'd rather do the latter."
Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899
At a glance: No Thyroid? No Problem! benefit ride
Day 1: Grand Portage State Park to Silver Bay (96 miles)
Day 2: Silver Bay to Barnum (97 miles)
Day 3: Barnum to Hugo (99 miles)
Day 4: Hugo to Wabasha (90 miles)
Day 5: Wabasha to New Albin, Iowa (84 miles)